Flowerpots on a windowsill, a terrace, or a patio can provide delicious food all summer long. Here are the simple how-tos for growing a container garden.

By Stephen Orr
Updated July 22, 2010
Herbs in flowerpots near a window
| Credit: Mikkel Vang

Step 1: Pick Out Your Pot

Choose a container that is at least 24 inches in diameter so there’s room for the plants to develop strong roots and grow as large as possible (bigger plants mean a more abundant harvest). Another benefit of a big pot: The large volume of soil will stay damp longer, requiring less frequent watering. Terra-cotta containers are always excellent options because their porosity allows air and water to move through the walls. Or consider repurposing a plastic trash can or bin and poking drainage holes in the bottom. If you live in a hot climate, avoid metal planters—the sun may heat up the soil temperature.

Step 2: Plan Your Arrangement

A 24-inch container can fit five to seven seedlings of varying sizes. Think of your planting as you would flowers in a vase. Choose an anchor—a large plant like a tomato, a pepper, a blueberry, or an eggplant. Add a plant with height—say, a tall, graceful fennel, an okra, or a dill. Then fill in around the edges with lettuce, spinach, and smaller herbs like parsley, basil, or rosemary. Try to include a plant that will dangle over the edge like nasturtium, strawberries, or even a small squash.

Step 3: Buy the Best Varieties

Visit your local nursery or farmers’ market to pick up the seedlings. Select varieties that are bred to be compact: Look for words like “dwarf,” “tiny,” “bush,” and “patio” in the plant names and descriptions. Pay attention to leaf colors and textures; to keep the arrangement looking attractive all season, you might want to plant golden oregano, purple kale, African basil, pink chard, and red or chartreuse lettuces. Also, seek out edible flowers like pansies, violets, chives, thyme, and lavender. Check the care tags to make sure the seedlings are compatible and can grow in the same pot.

Step 4: Prepare Your Container

Plant after the last frost (usually in April or May, depending on where you live). You’ll require just a trowel and gloves; there’s no need for any special tools. In the bottom of the container, place a layer of gravel or shards of broken terra-cotta pots; this will aid drainage. Top with a bag or two of regular potting soil, a mixture of materials like peat moss and vermiculite. Pat the soil down lightly with your fingers to get rid of air pockets. Soak the soil with water (from a hose or faucet) before planting so that it settles.

Step 5: Plant

Dig holes about four to six inches apart. Tip the seedlings out of their nursery containers and plant them, making sure the stem is completely above the surface. Leave about an inch between the soil surface and the rim of the pot. Water lightly once again until water comes out of the pot’s drainage holes.

Step 6: Support the Plants

Stake and tie climbing green beans and lanky plants like tomatoes—especially the small-fruiting cherry types. Make a tripod-style support out of three bamboo poles, wooden dowels, or twigs. Secure the bottom ends of the poles in the soil and tie the tops with wire or string until the tripod is sturdy. Then carefully tie the plants to the support.

Step 7: Maintain

Make sure your container garden gets at least six hours of sun a day. Water it whenever the soil is dry to the touch two inches below the surface—during the heat of summer, the soil may need watering every day. Every couple of weeks, feed the plants an organic plant food like fish emulsion, following the package directions. (The fertilizer will smell strong for a day or two but the plants will love the nitrogen.) You can also buy a dry organic fertilizer formulated especially for vegetables.

Step 8: Harvest Your Crops

As soon as your tomatoes, squash, eggplants, and berries bear fruit, harvest it—cutting will stimulate the plants to produce more. The same goes for basil, cilantro, arugula, and lettuce. Snip off any stem that looks as if it’s about to bloom—if it flowers, the plant will die early after going to seed. Lettuces and herb leaves can be snipped at their bases leaf by leaf while the plant continues to grow.